Backlog Delays Social Security



By: The Associated Press
 The New York Times, May 2, 2002



Washington -- Social Security officials say disabled Americans who apply for benefits often must wait two to three years to start receiving them because of a backlog of applications.

Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart delivered those findings Wednesday to Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who requested during Barnhart's confirmation hearing last year a study of delays in agency operations. Barnhart was testifying about the report Thursday at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing.

``I think the length of time the disability claims process can take is unacceptable,'' Barnhart she said.

Barnhart said she wants to make changes to the hearing process, including developing shorter forms for favorable decisions, allowing administrative law judges to issue decisions from the bench immediately after a hearing, creating a law clerk position, expanding videoteleconference hearings and digitally recording hearings.

She also said she thinks policy-makers must act as soon as possible to shore up future funding for the retirement program, and that President Bush's commission is a good starting point for discussion.

It can take as long as 1,150 days to process a disability application, the Social Security Administration study said. For about half the time, the applications remain idle because of a huge backlog of cases that haven't been completed because of legal appeals and other procedures.

For example, there were about 200,000 backlogged cases in 2001 at the administrative judge level.Out of 100 people who apply for disability benefits, on average 40 will be approved in about 125 days, the agency said, based on 2001 figures. About 35 of the 60 applications that were denied will go away, and about 25 will appeal. If a person continues through the entire appeals process, a final decision could come in as long as 1,150 days.

About 10 million disabled Americans receive Social Security supplemental income benefits. The Social Security Administration receives more than 2 million applications for disability benefits each year.

``The result is that disabled Americans are left to spend hundreds of days in limbo without critical help,'' Baucus said.

Reducing the overflow would require additional staff and a minimum of $400 million added to the agency's budget. Also, at least a third of delays could be reduced by new technology and process improvements, according to the findings.

Social Security is expected to start paying out more in benefits than it takes in in payroll taxes in 2017. Bush wants to let younger workers invest a portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market. His commission recommended three proposals to consider, but they have been criticized because future promised benefits would be cut.

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